University committee outlines new model for undergraduate education at JHU

Hopkins community invited to share feedback on CUE2 draft report online or in person

Two professors

Image caption: Aliza Watters, a lecturer in the Expository Writing Program, and Carolyn Fitch, a senior lecturer in the Department of Biophysics, are among the collaborating faculty leading a course known as the Protein Engineering and Biochemistry Laboratory.

Image credit: Will Kirk / Johns Hopkins University

A bold set of recommendations to redefine Johns Hopkins University's academic program for students seeking bachelor's degrees was released today by the Second Commission on Undergraduate Education, or CUE2. Students, faculty, and staff are invited to share their reactions online or in person during a series of town hall meetings.

At the heart of the CUE2 draft report is an emphasis on six areas in which all Hopkins undergraduates should develop foundational abilities before they graduate: language and writing, scientific and numerical reasoning, interpreting complex creative expression, citizenship in a diverse world, reflective ethical agency, and undertaking large-scale consequential projects.

To foster those skills, CUE2 has made recommendations focused on curriculum, teaching, and learning. Some highlights are:

  • A required first-year seminar
  • A Hopkins Semester of intensive study during junior or senior year
  • Flexible major requirements to allow for greater intellectual exploration
  • A move to assess students based on whether they met a fixed standard instead of assessing them relative to each other, that is, grading a class on a curve
  • A new system for assessing the quality of instruction and mentoring

The draft report represents several years of careful consideration by CUE2 representatives, a mix of faculty members, students, staff, and alumni from the Krieger and Whiting schools. Their work has included consulting experts in a variety of fields and seeking input directly from the Hopkins community.

"We worked to be true to the university's mission, faithful to its enduring character, and responsive to changing social, political, and economic realities," wrote Beverly Wendland, dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, and Ed Schlesinger, dean of the Whiting School of Engineering, in a message to students, faculty, and staff. "Now we have reached an exciting point in the process where we need you to look at the draft recommendations and share your feedback."

In order to issue a final report in late spring, the CUE2 team will gather feedback at a series of town halls and Coffee with the Co-Chairs events, starting with a town hall held from 4 to 6 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 27, in Levering Hall's Arellano Theater. Feedback may also be submitted via the CUE2 website.

Cat Wain was one of CUE2's four student representatives before graduating in 2019 with a bachelor's degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering and a minor in entrepreneurship and management from the Whiting School.

"I believe that all the recommendations are impactful and important," Wain said. "But based on my experiences and those of my peers, I believe the Hopkins Semester of intensive study and the increase in major flexibility will be top recommendations. Hopkins students are extremely passionate and curious. If we provide students the flexibility and support to pursue their passion, all in, for a semester, whether it be research, a creative endeavor, or professional experience, it will be transformative."

The report describes the Hopkins Semester as a mentored and immersive experience that would give students the opportunity to explore a complex subject or endeavor either inside or outside their major department. The Hopkins Semester would likely take place off campus, whether in an opera house, the U.S. Congress, a community center, a startup venture, a clinic, or even abroad.

Another potentially transformative recommendation is the first-year seminar, which would set the tone for the undergraduate experience with an introduction to university life, allowing students to work closely with faculty to explore scholarly topics.

Though the report is still in a draft form, some of its recommendations are already being put into practice this semester. The Protein Engineering and Biochemistry Lab taught by the Department of Biophysics has been modified to raise the issue of ethics in science and to emphasize writing. To provide writing support, the department is teaming up with Aliza Hapgood Watters, a lecturer in the Program in Expository Writing in the Krieger School, said Bertrand García-Moreno, chair of the Department of Biophysics in the Krieger School and a CUE2 member.

"Writing in particular rose to the top as being a critical skill that will have a huge influence on what happens to our students after college," García-Moreno said. "We're actually using writing as a way to help them think more conceptually, help them learn how to use writing as a tool for learning, for critical thinking rather than them hiding behind numbers and figures, as we scientists tend to do."

Although reimagining the course to fit the CUE2 goals took time, García-Moreno said he found it energizing—a feeling he hopes fellow faculty will embrace when they embark on the same effort.

"I hope that the response is one of unbridled enthusiasm because we really do have a unique opportunity right now to change the culture of undergraduate education at Hopkins," García-Moreno said. "I hope that what will happen is that we embrace a spirit of experimentation starting now, learn how to do some things well, and refine as we go along. Lessons learned will hopefully make it relatively easy to infuse our curriculum with the positive spirit of the CUE2 recommendations, little by little."

CUE2 members are aware that their recommendations might be provocative—all the more reason for people to share feedback through the provost's website or one of the upcoming listening events, said CUE2 member Michael Falk, vice dean for undergraduate education at the Whiting School of Engineering and a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

"We want to encourage people to really be forthright in their assessment of the recommendations," Falk said, "because this will hopefully set the agenda for how we're moving the needle on undergraduate education in the next decade or so."

The upcoming CUE2 feedback events are:

Town Halls

  • Thursday, Feb. 27, 4 to 6 p.m., Levering Hall, Arellano Theater
  • Tuesday, March 24, 2 to 4 p.m., Charles Commons Salon C

Coffee with the CUE2 Co-Chairs

  • Tuesday, March 10, 2:30 to 3:30 p.m., Mason Hall, Alumni Boardroom
  • Friday, March 27, 1:30 to 2:30 p.m., Mattin Center, Room 160
  • Wednesday, April 1, 1 to 2 p.m., Malone Hall, Room G33/G35
  • Monday April 6, 2:30 to 3:30 p.m., Mason Hall, Alumni Boardroom